Recently, a synagogue in downtown Chicago was vandalized. Windows were broken and swastikas were placed on the face of the building. This heinous act followed a series of nationwide bomb threats at JCCs, and increased anti-Semitism on campuses and at other Jewish communal institutions. A few days after the attack a group of nearly 1000: Christians, Moslems, and Jews gathered in the sanctuary of that congregation to express solidarity with the worshipers, and to stand with the Jewish community of greater Chicago. Even for this cynic, it was a moving and inspirational hour. Clergy and community activists said all the right things, and representatives of the Jewish community graciously acknowledged and gratefully saluted the outpouring of unanimity and concord.
Despite it’s emotional impact, I left feeling more than a bit disheartened. All the while, amidst the proclamations of unity and fraternity, I had this gnawing feeling about how the Jewish community, the object of such affection, respect, and concern that day, was itself an often-reprehensible example of the kind of disunity, enmity, and hatred being decried at that very vigil. While intra-communal examples of physical or structural violence are few and far between in the American Jewish community, the rising level of dysfunctional discourse and internecine invective is cause for growing concern.
In matters ranging from BDS to the Iran deal, self-purporting Jewish “leaders” have fallen prey to a level of vituperation, the consequences of which are devastating, and only likely to get worse. It goes without saying (though I will) that the extreme polarization following the recent US Presidential election has not left American Jewry unscathed. And as observers of the Jewish scene have noted for years, religious tensions along the left-right continuum mean that American Jews are virtual strangers, one from another.
It is ironic, but worth noting, that Jews in America today are so much more comfortable dialoguing with those of other religious faiths than with their own coreligionists. Painful as it is to acknowledge, Jewish communal leaders and clergy are more likely to engage in respectful, courteous, well-mannered, and even reverential exchanges with Christians and Moslems, despite enormous theological differences, than with Jews who hold opposing religious and political perspectives. Perhaps this is nothing more than a contemporary manifestation of the old truism that no fight is worse than a family fight. But I am hard-pressed to justify current practices as usual and customary.
To be clear, as a student of Jewish leadership I have long celebrated the values associated with that old saw: two Jews, three opinions, four organizations. Where others prefer consensus, I have always relished robust debate if it is, in the words of the Talmud, “for the sake of heaven.” Jews are the proud inheritors of a tradition that elevates and preserves differences of opinion, and we should revel in that.
But there is a difference between vigorous disputation and what the rabbis call “causeless hatred.” Human speech has the potential to ennoble and to destroy. According to the book of Proverbs, “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” And a midrash suggests that “When the tongue is good, there is nothing better; when bad, there is nothing worse.” While the sages were no strangers to impassioned argumentation, they never lost sight of the fact that language matters. In their view, debate that demonizes and delegitimizes can be the equivalent of murder.
As I have suggested, when it comes to communal debate, the goal should not be consensus for consensus’ sake. Indeed, there is no scholarly evidence that conflict-free enterprises are more efficient. In truth, most researchers agree that healthy conflict stimulates creativity. When communities are at odds over major issues, it is often far more important to first cultivate and explore dissent than to immediately force alignment.
At the same time, however, the very organizational leaders who seek commonwealth between religious traditions, who extol the benefits of communal harmony, would do well to consider why the same principles of peaceable discourse, respect, and sensitivity are so often missing from our own community conversations. Or to put it another way, why is it that we are so much better at inter-faith dialogue than intra-faith dialogue?
Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. His books include Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership and From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org